Oklahoma Black Town Stories

In 1993, my mother told me that my grandparents, who I visited often in New York, once lived in one of Oklahoma’s historic “All Black Towns.” These towns, that were then unknown to me and are still little-known to much of America, were where black Americans settled beginning in the 19th century to create spaces for black support and survival during the Jim Crow era. My grandparents moved to Oklahoma in the 1940s, at least a decade after what historians consider black towns’ peak years (1880s-1930s) when the Oklahoma communities were bastions of social, economic and entrepreneurial strength. Langston, Oklahoma, whose quasi-founder is credited with spawning a black town movement, is where my mother spent five years of her childhood with her parents before the family moved to Chicago and then Atlanta.

While my curiosity about black towns was first piqued in 1993, it wasn’t until 2004 that I began researching the communities. As an academic, I studied Oklahoma’s black towns but I came to the towns through my mother who was a valued source of information to me as she recounted her days in Langston. Her stories resonated with those of others I would encounter in black towns across the state, which led me to realize that family stories about what black towns were provide a glimpse into the meaning of black towns in the present. Based on my mother’s stories and the stories of elders who I interviewed, the meaning of black towns to many is the communities’ historic capacity to support and improve black Americans’ lives especially under challenging and threatening conditions.
What were my mother’s stories? She boasted about her stellar school experience at what I now know was the Langston Training School. The school’s feature that stood out for her was the classrooms mixed with students of different ages. My mother was convinced that her Langston schooling was the reason she did so well when she entered conventional urban public schools in Atlanta and Chicago. In Langston, she said, “I was exposed to things that kids in grades ahead of me were learning.”

The Langston town borders were where she spent almost all of her time, because, as she described it, life outside of Langston was less familiar and comfortable. Her descriptions reinforced an idea that others have held: black towns were responsible for residents’ personal safety and strong black sense of self. In Coyle, the historically all-white town and former “Sundown Town” that neighbors Langston, my mother remembered an air of hostility toward blacks. She remembered how her family never went there. “Stay away from Coyle,” she warned me, not knowing that after the Civil Rights era, Coyle was where Langston children went and still go to school. Today, some retirement-age graduates of Coyle schools echo my mother when they now say that, having started their schooling in Langston where standards were high and education rigorous, Coyle schools were a breeze.

Perhaps the most memorable story my mother tells is one that I’m sure she heard from her own mother and I suspect it has traveled in family lore across generations. It is a story of the first time my mother stepped outside of Langston’s borders and went to Guthrie, once the capital of Oklahoma and about 15 miles from Langston. In a Guthrie store, she spotted a blond-haired, white girl and, as she grabbed a lock of the girl’s hair, she asked my grandmother “Mommy, what’s this?.” My mother usually laughed at that point in the story. She wrapped the story up by emphasizing what I believe she wanted me to see as remarkable: before that trip to Guthrie, she had never seen a white person.

What I have learned about Oklahoma’s black town stories is that they demonstrate how much black towns still appeal to those who once lived in them. The stories often underscore people’s experiences of community, comfort, easier living and strength inside of the communities. Many people who (unlike my mother) are living in black towns today, lament the impact of poverty, the beginnings of rural gentrification in some places, and the loss of black town institutions such as schools. But they also describe black towns as appealing places for the communities’ rich history, markers of social prominence, and active black culture such as rodeos, festivals and reunions. Those who tell black town stories even describe and dream of possible black town futures where the entrepreneurial, economic and institutional prominence returns. Their stories of the past that prove black community cohesion and fortitude, help contribute to those dreams.

For further reading on Oklahoma’s black towns:
Crockett, Norman (1979) The Black Towns. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas.

Hill, Mozell (1946) The All-Negro Communities of Oklahoma: The Natural History of a
Social Movement, Part I. The Journal of Negro History, 31(3): 254-268

Hill, Mozell C. and Thelma D. Ackiss (1943) Culture of a Contemporary All-Negro
Community. Langston, Oklahoma. Langston, OK: Langston University

Larry O’Dell, “Langston,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, www.okhistory.org

Stuckey, Melissa Nicole (2009) All Men Up: Race, Rights, and Power in the All-Black
Town of Boley, Oklahoma, 1903-1939. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Department
of History, Yale University

Washington, Booker T. (1908) “Boley: A Negro Town in the West.” The Outlook 88:28-








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